Nell Gwynn

Shakespeare’s Globe, London (****)

copy; Tristram Kenton

copy; Tristram Kenton

It’s hard to over-state the pleasure that is the Globe’s final production of their 2015 summer season and Dominic Dromgoole’s last as artistic director. Next year, Emma Rice, formerly of Kneehigh, takes over the reins.

Dromgoole whose commitment and introduction of so much new writing at the Globe – a legacy of his time at the Bush Theatre – has shone like a good deed in a naughty world, rounds off his tenure with this commission of Jessica Swales’ `tribute’ to the orange seller and first lady of the English stage Nell Gwynn.

It’s often forgotten that Nell became, quite by chance, a pioneering role model as our first and much loved actress as well as a famous mistress to a King. And what a delicious riot of a portrait Swales makes of her twin achievements as directed by Christopher Luscombe, a director for whom the word `glum’ is beyond his comprehension and who has never, knowingly to my knowledge, delivered a production that didn’t send you out with a more enhanced sense of the joy of life.

Such it is with Nell Gwynn, here at the Globe. Maybe partly it’s the outdoor open-ness of the Globe which, when all the gears are moving as one, brings play, performer, and audience together in a communion second to none.

copy; Tristram Kenton

copy; Tristram Kenton

Such was the case last week, on a chilly, early autumn evening as Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Nell assailed the air with street cries, caught the eye of actor Charles Hart (Jay Taylor), leading actor in Charles II’s King’s Company much to the fury of the company’s main `female’ actor, Ed Kynaston and off we went. Two and a half hours of sometimes bawdy, sometimes sophisticated, always watchable glee as Nell makes her way from the stews of Covent Garden to the bedchamber of the monarch.

Together Swales, Luscombe and the genius that is also composer Nigel Hess conjure up a mid 17th century period not short on vicious social climbing and political danger – England’s civil war after all is barely a decade away, the monarchy only restored in 1660 and here we are barely four years on – but thanks to Charles’ patronage and enlightened view of the arts and theatre particularly, enjoying a burst of new life.

copy; Tristram Kenton

copy; Tristram Kenton

That Nell’s advancement had so much to do with this renewal allows Swales and Luscombe enormous license to indulge in recreating attitudes, styles and backstage goings-on, much as Stoppard winningly produced for Shakespeare in Love, which they seize with both hands. There is the same love, here, too, of what, in the end, comes to be the reality of the evening – the moment of magic that lives only in that moment and is then gone. Cue also some neatly inserted – and warmly received – contemporary references to the importance of playhouses and the awfulness of austerity (boo!).

Swales gives Nell memorably down to earth lines about theatre’s evanescence. But most of all she gives her a robust sense of self, often pert, but truthful and completely uninterested in `a legacy’ of fame. She lives for the moment – an attribute that amongst the conflicting historical records about Nell Gwynn and Charles II’s relationship (which produced two offspring) there seems to be general agreement that this was for the king her most treasured asset.

In Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance, though, it’s hard not to see what he, Hart and so many others found so attractive. Effervescent, bubbly, with the sweetest of singing voices, Mbatha-Raw is simply luminous. A star is certainly born.

copy; Tristram Kenton

copy; Tristram Kenton

But she’s aided and abetted with an all-round stand-out ensemble, amongst which Amanda Lawrence, former Kneehigh luminary, as Nell’s dresser, captures all hearts with her slow-burn stares and timing. Sarah Woodward’s mad turn as Queen Catherine and Nell’s pipe-smoking brothel-owning mother, Sasha Waddell’s flighty Lady Castlemaine, hands fluttering in all directions like a younger Maggie Smith, Richard Katz exasperated King’s Company Manager, David Rintoul’s weathered Lord Arlington (advisor to Charles) and Charles himself (David Sturzaker), could hardly be bettered.

As you can tell, I can’t remember when I enjoyed myself so much. Music-hall for the modern age, broad, rich, all-embracing and very rewarding. Do see!

Nell Gwynn is at Shakespeare’s Globe to Oct 17, 2015

First published in Londongrip Sept 2015